Time to change shoes: Why and When

20th August 2014

Time to change shoes: why and when

For a simple sport, we tend to find a way of overcomplicating things. This is true for training techniques and it’s definitely true for running shoes. Without any firm “rules” for shoe selection, it’s hard to know which one to choose. You’ll need to consider the dimensions of your foot, the way it functions and the way you run. If you need support, it needs to be the right amount of support in the right location to do the job. But what if your needs change? What if your technique changes? The ol’ faithfuls that you’ve been wearing for decades may no longer suit your needs. So how do you find the right match?

Think of shoes like you think of your car. When you’re in your 20s, the right car is attractive and fast with a good stereo. Once you’ve got kids, you need something bigger and more reliable with a TV in the back. Once the family is older, you need something that is fuel-efficient and holds golf clubs. After that, you’re into Volvo territory.

My point is that your needs change, and you don’t look for a new car by googling “best car”. You don’t look at what Michael Schumacher prefers. You don’t ask your young single friend what they drive when all you need is something to transport your flock around. You think of what features you need, then what features would be nice, then you search for the best match.

The same applies to shoes. Your needs will change as you evolve. Your foot may get wider over time, you may begin to run faster or slower or move to longer distances. Or you may start getting recurrent injuries, whether it’s a persistent achilles problem or a dodgy knee. Brand loyalty is all well and good but sticking with the same model for years may not always work due to changing needs (not to mention manufacturer’s changes to the design of a shoe).

So what would prompt you to change shoes?

The two main reasons are:

1. If they don’t feel the same as the previous model. This may happen if your foot changes shape or widens (eg. developing or worsening bunions). And believe it or not, shoe manufacturer’s can change the width and shape of a shoe from year to year. If it doesn’t feel right, start looking for a new shoe. The uppers on most shoes don’t stretch much over time, so don’t think that giving them some time will make it any better.

2. If you start to get aches and niggles with a (likely) consistent cause, plantar fasciitis, bunions, medial knee pain, anterior hip pain: they may all be caused by a lack of muscle support of the arch of the foot. There are specific strength exercises that can help, but switching to a more supportive shoe will also help by reducing the demand on the muscles and making their job easier.

What to choose and why

What can a shoe do for you?

1. Support. It’s the most commonly required feature in a running shoe, but what is it? It’s not for “flat feet” or “fallen arches”. The support in a shoe assists the stabilising muscles of the foot and ankle to help slow the rate of pronation. If the stabilisers are weak (eg. returning from a long injury lay-off) or if significant endurance is required (eg. marathon or greater), a support shoe can delay the onset of muscle fatigue. Basically you can run further with better form and fewer injuries. The trade off for more support is less cushioning, as the shoe must be firmer to resist pronation.

Examples: Brooks Adrenaline GTS, Asics Gel GT-2000, Mizuno Wave Inspire

2. Cushioning. Aside from feeling nice underfoot, cushioning can help in some types of running. It doesn’t protect from bone stress injuries as the body will offset the cushioning effect by landing heavier, giving the same net loading. But landing heavier means that less muscle force is required to absorb the impact, so cushioned shoes can reduce fatigue in quads and other muscles during downhill running. But the downside is that cushioned shoes can’t offer support as well. The other drawback is that lots of cushioning absorbs your power while running up hills, making it a bit more work for the muscles.

Examples: Hoka Conquest, New Balance 1080, Saucony Triumph

3. Racing & Minimalist. These shoes are notable for what they don’t offer. They tend to have little cushioning or support, although there is quite a range of options. The idea of a racing shoe is that it’s light and the reduced cushioning allows most of your power to be transferred through to the ground, so it’s better for performance. The idea behind minimalist is that it gives better feel of the ground to assist with technique refinement and uses different muscles than traditional shoes. Contrary to early theories, it doesn’t automatically improve running technique, it doesn’t make the foot stronger and it doesn’t reduce injury risk. But used properly, it offers some different loading patterns and can help by challenging the foot.

Examples: Asics DS Racer, Saucony Type A6, New Balance Minimus range

So how can they help your rehab?

During your rehab, think of what you need most at any particular point in time:

If you want to get back to running distance quickly or you need to be race-ready ASAP, a support shoe can extend the capability of your stabilisers overnight.

If you have sensitive areas under your foot or your quad strength is limiting your runs, a pair of cushioned shoes might be the answer.

If you’re not in a rush and want to refine your technique or challenge your feet as much as possible in the rehab phase, minimalist shoes might be for you.

But it’s never that clear cut. And that’s where the mixed featured shoes come into play. For example, you want a light racing shoe but you need a bit of support as well. There’s the Asics DS Trainer – like the DS Racer but offering mild support, adding 100g in weight. Or the Saucony Fastwitch – like the Type A6 but with some mild support, adding 60g in weight.

Just remember that mixed featured shoes must always compromise on one feature to offer another. They can’t be super supportive and light weight, or soft and cushioned as well as firm and supportive. So you need to prioritise what you really need and make sure your shoe achieves that goal. Realistically your needs may be slightly different depending on the type of session that you’re doing. Your long run shoe should be different from your speed session shoe, so invest in your running performance and get the right shoes for the job.

Remember that new shoes cost around $200 but an injury could set you back a lot more than that.

Peter Colagiuri is a Sports Physiotherapist, specialising in running injuries. He practices in Miranda and Manly in addition to researching at the University of Sydney. For more information see bioathletic.com.au, manly@bioathletic.com.au or book an appointment (02) 9977 1580.

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